Slowly but Surely

Most Israelis and Palestinians reject the status quo, but neither side is capable of doing more than accepting in principle the 2003 road map and the two-state solution. Given this situation, the responsible way to handle things is to attach a gradual political action plan to the Palestinian state-building proposal that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad put forth in August.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we are witness to an utter cacophony of statements and counter-statements, as well as much cheap talk. This is especially true now. In this case, however, talk is not cheap and it can even be dangerous. Most of the threats and dire predictions come from frustration, and frustration should never be a substitute for carefully drafted policy based on cool-headed analysis.

Israel's current government will have trouble at home when it tries to implement its decision to freeze settlement construction for 10 months. It may collapse outright if it attempts even more "painful decisions." The Palestinian Authority is in constitutional disarray, and has been ruptured by the deep geographic and political split between the West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Most Israelis and Palestinians reject the status quo, but neither side is capable of doing more than accepting in principle the 2003 road map and the two-state solution.

Given this situation, the responsible way to handle things is to attach a gradual political action plan to the Palestinian state-building proposal that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad put forth in August.

Partial agreements between the Israeli and Palestinian governments cannot take the place of a final-status agreement, but they can serve as precursors. A major element of this approach should be changing the status of territory in the West Bank. The two sides would agree to expand Area A, where the Palestinians currently have both civil and security authority, by reducing Area B, where Israel maintains non-civil powers. U.S. General Keith Dayton's success in building up the Palestinian security forces over the past four years should provide encouragement for this idea. As the capabilities of the Palestinian internal security forces improve, Israel can review its policy, and the PA should be able to assume more responsibilities in terms of both substance and territory.

Israel can coordinate economic projects with the PA in Area C, where Israel currently maintains all powers - civil and security. Area C constitutes 60 percent of the West Bank, and a gradual, partial transfer to the Palestinians can be conducted without harming Israel's security concerns. The two sides can also negotiate other issues, such as the nature of their economic relations, which could include transitioning from the current customs union to a regime closer to a free-trade agreement.

Another measure that pertains to Israeli relations with the United States is the dismantling of unauthorized outposts. Israel relies on U.S. commitments; it, too, should honor its written commitments to its strongest ally.

Positive results from this kind of gradual approach may lead to other constructive measures, even in Jerusalem. It is ludicrous to give the Temple Mount and the Shoafat refugee camp equal historical, religious and national significance. Regardless of Palestinian ambitions regarding Jerusalem, Israel should define its own interests there more precisely. This could even lead to altering the route of the security barrier around the city.

This is not a perfect solution, in that it does not end the drawn-out Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is, rather, an honest attempt to suggest a way extricate the process from its current impasse. While the proposal does not foreclose discussion of final-status issues, it aims to avoid the pitfalls of all previous attempts to reach a comprehensive agreement at a single summit or in a one-year process. This incremental approach can be synchronized with Fayyad's Palestinian state-building process. It would give the Palestinians a chance to sort out their domestic political differences, and Israel time to prepare mentally, politically and in terms of security for life alongside an independent Palestinian state.

The international community can be involved as well. Rather than float willful and harmful ideas, as Sweden does, the Quartet can give both sides assurances and assistance in monitoring implementation and linking it to the road map. Unilateral action by either side will cause serious long-term damage, and the way to avoid it is to return to a steady, agreed-upon course of action that will ultimately lead to two states.

Oded Eran is director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). This article is based on a document written by him and INSS colleagues Shlomo Brom and Giora Eiland. It will be presented at the Insitute's third annual conference, December 14-15.